1. Liberty and Scottish Literature
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1 I: CONCEPTS AND THEMES 1. Liberty and Scottish Literature ALAN RIACH The word ‘liberty’ refers to a matter of value, a quality that people might wish to sustain to have greater control over their own lives, to be free from the impositions of others. This desire is entwined among the deepest roots of Scottish history, and rarely does it blossom into fruit that can be seen, held and eaten. Other ideas implied by the word include the relationship of people in society, the social contract we might enter into freely, recognition of the state of nature in which our lives exist. Understanding is a liberation. To understand human limitations is to measure them, and maybe test them. For some, the active exercise of human rights is essential to the ideal of liberty. For some, liberty implies a relation between free will and pre-determined destiny, choice and chance, the saved and the damned, and other questions of philosophical and religious import. The word ‘freedom’ is probably most widely associated throughout the film-watching world with Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning Braveheart (1995). ‘Liberty’, however, has a particular resonance for readers of Scottish literature , from the phrase of Robert Burns – ‘Liberty’s in every blow!’ – in his song ‘Scots Wha Hae’, which so easily becomes a cliché in the mouths of those whom another great Scottish poet has called ‘Scots Wha Ha’evers’ (‘Havers’ being a good Scots words meaning the sheer nonsense some people speak).1 That poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, has this cautionary – and serious – note in his 1930 poem, To Circumjack Cencrastus: Freedom is inconceivable. The word Betrays the cause – a habit o’ the mind, Thinkin’ continually in a certain way, Generation after generation …2 In this formulation, ‘the cause’ of freedom is betrayed by the singular word 2 and its mindless repetition. The word itself defines the idea because it insists upon form. If freedom itself signifies a liberation from constriction, a breaking away from structure or form, the cause that leads to the breaking away is betrayed by the definition conferred by the word itself. The paradox is there in the opening paragraph: liberty demands self-control and a social contract, an obligation, a recognition of form. Fruits require roots. Yet form itself is a kind of liberation, a resistance against formlessness, an assertion of identity against the threat of a stronger identity, a structure that might be required to maintain self-determination against the encroachment of other forces. When Wordsworth talks of ‘The still, sad music of humanity’, that word ‘sad’ seems to signify grave, or solemn, or serious, while the word ‘music’ seems to speak of something redemptive, a kind of liberation indeed, something we make through language, but something that goes beyond language too, a form of liberty.3 This is an impulse that takes us beyond words, but it is surely and deftly conveyed by the words of the poet. The paradox here is profound in both philosophy and art. Arguably its most precise formulation is in point 2.0121 of the second proposition of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, where Ludwig Wittgenstein says this: ‘Just as we are quite unable to imagine spatial objects outside space or temporal objects outside time, so too there is no object that we can imagine excluded from the possibility of combining with others.’⁴ In this understanding, ‘Freedom is inconceivable’ by definition. However, proposition 2.022 is: ‘It is obvious that an imagined world, however different it may be from the real one, must have something – a form – in common with it.’⁵ The reintroduction of the notion of form here has a specific bearing on the work of art. This is made evident in the famous discussion between Jean Sibelius and Gustav Mahler, in which Sibelius said that what he most admired in a symphony was ‘severity of form and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives’ whereas Mahler by contrast declared, ‘No! The symphony must be all-embracing.’⁶ For Sibelius, form meant power, but for Mahler, it meant constriction. For Sibelius, form was power, and the symphony was a statement as unalterable, permanent and strong as the landscapes of alan riach 3 liberty and scottish literature Finland, whereas for Mahler the symphony was a liberation, an extending and extenuating development of themes and motives and ideas, earthed not in landscape but in self-understanding, almost endless exfoliating autobiography. The difference can be heard in their work. Yet this is the paradox...


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